The Covid-19 pandemic is raging like never before. Why can’t India suspend the Kumbh?
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath was unlikely to be in the brightest of spirits on the evening of April 13. He was under isolation – several of his officials had tested positive for Covid-19 earlier in the day. He was perhaps running a temperature or nursing a body ache himself. (His office announced he had tested positive next morning.)
Outside, a horror show was unfolding in Lucknow – the night sky was heavy with the smoke of pyres of those who had succumbed to the virus. That day India’s most populous state saw the highest number of Covid-19 death in more than six months.
At twenty past nine that evening, Adityanath – an unapologetic and unabashed Hindu nationalist – put out a tweet. “Faith should be respected,” he wrote, in Hindi, “but faith is for humans and not vice versa.”
He added, “In these times of a pandemic, we should keep faith aside to save humanity and participate in the country’s efforts against the coronavirus.”
This was probably the first ever public statement by a leader of any standing from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party which seemed to allude – however cryptically – to the logic-defying crowds at the Kumbh Mela in Uttarakhand’s Haridwar, which began on April 9 and runs till May 8.
On April 12, nearly three million people took a dip in the waters of the Ganga at the Kumbh, even as Covid-19 cases surpassed all previous records in many states, including the national capital, merely 200 km away.
Over 2,000 people have tested positive in Haridwar in the past five days, news that has elicited a great amount of middle class exasperation in India. The fear is that infected pilgrims will take back new, more infectious variants of the virus to towns and villages across the length and breadth of the country.
But what explains such a tweet by a politician whose commitment to faith has often taken precedence over Constitutionalism? Was it a sick man’s moment of weakness?
“He was talking about Ramzan and Navaratri, not about Kumbh” said Rakesh Tripathi, a Bharatiya Janata Party leader from Uttar Pradesh.
Some journalists and political observers agree with Tripathi’s matter-of-fact view, but many don’t. The ambiguity in the tweet, clearly deliberate, they say, is reason enough to believe that it was pointed towards the Kumbh too.
With the medical infrastructure in Uttar Pradesh already on the verge of a breakdown, an event of such a scale in a neighbouring state was bound to make a chief minister nervous, however strong his faith may be. Even more so when he is up for reelection in less than a year.
That perhaps begs another question: If Adityanath, despite Hindutva being his most important calling card, could speak up (however ambiguously), what is preventing Prime Minister Narendra Modi with all his political capital from cutting short the Kumbh?
After all, in 2020 when the virus first started spreading in India, he did discourage gatherings for Holi, one of the most important Hindu festivals. There was little backlash and most people heeded the prime minister’s advice.
Journalist Dhirendra K Jha has spent years reporting on the players central to the Kumbh Mela: the Hindu ascetic called Sadhus and the Akharas, as the institutions they are affiliated to are called. According to him, associated with the whole affair were political compulsions that Modi just could not ignore even if he wanted to.
“Modi cannot speak up against Kumbh,” said Jha, “because a big section of these sadhus play an instrumental role in the mobilisation of Hindu votes during elections. He cannot afford to upset them.”
And the Kumbh, Jha said, was as high-stake as it gets for the sadhus – not just for reasons of faith but also economically. “It is an occasion to make money,” he explained. “The state government allocates particular spaces to each akhara which sub-lets smaller areas to the sadhus. The sadhus set up tents, connect a fan or two, and some bulbs, where their followers camp. The followers pay a nominal amount and that is how money is made.”
Sudhir Panwar, a former member of Uttar Pradesh Planning Commission and a professor at Lucknow University, had a similar thesis. “There seems to be a belief that the urban middle class anger will pass anyway,” said Panwar, who contested the 2018 Assembly elections in the state on a Samajwadi Party ticket. “And the constituency currently in Kumbh is a permanent constituency whom you cannot afford to anger.”
To cancel the mela with election rallies still continuing in West Bengal, Panwar said, would have appeared particularly egregious.
(Notably, even Akhilesh Yadav, the Samajwadi Party’s president, took a dip in the Ganges as part of the mela before testing positive.)
As Jha pointed out, the Kumbh was not an annual affair. It happens after a gap of approximately 12 years, making the event all the more important for the sadhus’ sustenance.
Said Manvir Singh, a BJP leader from Uttarakhand: “This is a festival of the sadhu-sants. We have made enough arrangements to make sure their sentiments are not hurt and safety is also not compromised.”
But a section of the sadhus seemed to be developing cold feet on Wednesday. “More and more people are testing positive in the akharas,” said Mahanta Ravindrapuri, secretary of Haridwar’s Niranjani Akhara, whose chief priest Narendra Giri tested positive. “Maybe it’s better to cancel, because if we are finished, what mela will there be?”
On Thursday evening, news came in that the chief priest of another ascetic group, the Mahanirvani Akhara, had died of Covid-19. The Niranjani Akhara announced it was withdrawing from the Kumbh.
Will this finally make the government cut short the Kumbh? Probably not.